Clara's "Unsurpassed Joy"
Clara Wieck (soon to become Clara Schumann) wrote in her diary, “Composing gives me great pleasure… There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation…”
Clara’s father taught her a wide spectrum of musical arts from a young age, including improvising, arranging, and composing. At the age of fourteen, Clara wrote a piano concerto. Two years later, she performed it in Leipzig with no less than Felix Mendelssohn conducting!
Not long after she became Mrs. Schumann, Clara wrote three sentences in her diary that I consider to be among the most poignant lines in music history: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea. A woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” Though she continued to improvise throughout her long and productive life, and though her compositions have had many admirers, she didn’t compose anything after the age of thirty-six.
Why did Clara give up a joy that “nothing surpasses”? There are a constellation of reasons—circumstantial, cultural, and psychological. We could easily spend a week discussing the widespread 19th-century attitudes about women and the unfortunate consequences for Clara and other unquestionably brilliant musicians such Fanny Mendelssohn and Nannerl Mozart. However, this would lead us away from my intention, which is to discuss a more timely point:
Millions of people do the same thing every day. They give up the joy of creation (usually before experiencing it!) because of some belief that essentially says STOP. Perhaps the belief is: “It is not socially acceptable for me to do this.” Or this: “I have no talent.” Perhaps it is: “I don’t have enough training.” Or: “This is just self-indulgent doodling. I’ll stick with Beethoven who obviously knew what he was doing!” Regardless of the particular belief, the end result of the same. The majority of music students and musicians don’t regularly experience one of life’s great joys—the often thrilling experience of musical creation.
I suggest we honor Clara Schumann-Wieck by recognizing and admiring her astonishing accomplishments and steadfast courage amidst many terribly challenging circumstances. And then… we expose the unfounded beliefs of our time, embrace a neglected joy, and help our students do the same!
My dear Clara, my next composition is for you. I will be sending the “unsurpassed joy of creation” your way!